A Secret Sanctuary, Seldom Seen: Pittsburgh’s Secret Greenway

train trestle through woods covered in graffiti

Seldom seen but oft-graffiti’d. The “secret place” graffiti trestle at Seldom Seen Greenway, Beechview.

It’s not an easy thing to do–hiding a 22-acre green space right in the middle of a city. But that’s just what seems to have happened here.

On the one hand, Seldom Seen Greenway seems incongruously named. The medium-small park is at a collision between the steep wooded hillsides on southwest side of the city and a criss-crossing of old urban infrastructure. What remains has been graffitied and tagged-up; footpaths are littered with the broken glass of a hundred beer bottles. Go there on a sunny Sunday, like we did, and you’ll encounter casual hikers canoodling and doobie-smokers cave-huffing. In short: enough folks have managed to visit and leave their traces that this place is at least somewhat seen.

wide creek through woods

Sawmill Run through Seldom Seen Greenway

By any other measure, though, Seldom Seen is legitimately a secret among its peers in the city parks system. There’s no signage to point you to an entrance and getting here is neither either easy nor obvious. A placard near the tiny parking lot states Est. by the City of Pittsburgh, 1985 and Given by the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy but neither entity wants to claim it.

The CitiParks web site lists several dozen–maybe a hundred–different parks in city limits. These range from gigantic Frick, Schenley, and Riverview down to individual basketball courts and corner-lot playgrounds, but it makes no mention of Seldom Seen. The Greenway is just as invisible on the WPA Conservancy site.

Technically in Beechview, Seldom Seen is really nowhere–off-road along an anonymous stretch of Rt. 51, downhill from Mt. Washington, and just east of the West End. I’ve been in Pittsburgh for 24 years and yet I don’t know anyone who’s been there. It was time to go check it out.

stone arch over creek and footpath

The Seldom Seen Arch, 1902

Acting as both entrance gate and its most prominent single feature, the Seldom Seen Arch, a creek-spanning stone-and-brick railroad bridge, is worth the trip all by itself. A Pittsburgh History & Landmarks plaque informs us the arch was constructed in 1902 and features the kind of masonry craftsmanship one worries has been banished from this earth.

The particular design has a series of tiered, stair step-like half rings that are each offset from the previous layer by a width of two bricks at the base. At the point directly overhead, everything flattens out; by the opposite wall, the layer order has reversed. It’s really a remarkably beautiful construction for something as mundane as the underside of a small railroad bridge in the woods. I’m afraid no single photograph will do it justice, so if you like this kind of thing you really need to go see it in person.

detail of intricate brickwork in arched stone and brick train trestle

Detail, Seldom Seen Arch brickwork

Infrastructure around train tracks is something of a theme at Seldom Seen. There are at least three different trestles the visitor walks under/around in the relatively short span of a hike here. Neither of the others are as spectacular as the arch, but they all offer great thing-in-the-woods scenery, dramatic shadow forms, and opportunities for exploration.

underside of old steel and wood train trestle

Trestle-view

cement and steel train trestle in the woods

Shadowplay. Train trestle and walking bridge.

Of course, the real attraction of a place like this is the open nature one gets to explore and Seldom Seen has that in abundance. Little Sawmill Run flows slowly on a crooked course through the venue. Here in Pittsburgh’s dry season, it’s obvious the water is at a low point, allowing easy walks out into the middle of the slow creek on various stone patches. Likely the full width of the creek spreads out considerably in rainier times.

woman standing by creek in woods

Mom of Orbit (MOO? OK, maybe not)/Orbit Mom (OM? better) in the stone-filled, low water Sawmill Run

While north of the creek is relatively flat land where a couple short hiking paths lead through the woods, the other side tells a different, more dramatic, story. Rising up from the water’s edge is a steep hillside that appears to go straight up for at least a hundred feet–all of which is covered in a thick wood.

layers of graffiti on cement wall

Layers of graffiti

Together, Seldom Seen Greenway is a beautiful collection of elements that feel uniquely Pittsburgh: steep hillsides, lush deep green overgrowth, industrial history, a kids-in-the-woods/troublemaker paradise, and nature-without-man benign neglect. Its status as no one-wants-to-claim-us park/not-a-park only makes it moreso.

It took me 24 years to make it here–heck, it took me 20 years just to hear about the place! You know about it too (at least, now you do) and there’s never been a better time to check out a place where you’ll encounter few other humans and lots of fresh air.

salt dome by busy two-lane highway

Getting there: turn at the Rt. 51 salt dome!

Getting there: The first rule is don’t rely on Google’s directions! If you do, you’ll end up at a small industrial drive surrounded by the wares of an apparent flag merchant. This is interesting in its own right, but it’s not the Seldom Seen Greenway.

Sadly, you do need a car* because one has to drive on the highway. There will be no road signs for the Greenway. You can only get there from the south-east-bound lane of Rt. 51/Sawmill Run Blvd. Just before you get to Woodruff Street, there’s a BP station and then the tell-tale DPW salt dome. Take the little turn-off and there will be a small parking lot with a little sign telling you you’re in the right spot. You won’t miss the arch.

* Perhaps one could walk from the back side of Mt. Washington (Woodruff Street), but it ain’t recommended.

wooded hillside and creek

Sawmill Run through Seldom Seen Greenway

What’s Up with WATSOP? A Q&A with Lisa Valentino on Her Quest to Walk Every Street in Pittsburgh

artist Lisa Valentino posing with a completed walking map of a section of Pittsburgh

One down, 89 to go. Artist Lisa Valentino having just completed walking every street in Garfield.

At the Orbit, we like to think we’ve, you know, been around. To have at least set a foot in all of Pittsburgh’s 90 neighborhoods, sure, but also up city steps and down back alleys, poked behind dumpsters and into collapsing buildings, we’ve partied with weed-eating goats on the South Side and wild turkeys in Allegheny Cemetery, we know where the wild blackberries can be picked in June and the pawpaws fall in September.

All that bragging and when it comes to seeing Pittsburgh–like, really seeing Pittsburgh–we’re still holding Lisa Valentino‘s Olde Frothingslosh.

front yard decorated with homemade religious ornaments

IRL word cloud for the Orbit: Heaven and Hell, sin and blood. Front yard decoration in Lincoln-Lemington-Belmar.

Valentino is an artist by day and an urban hiker by … the other parts of the day. Five years ago she set out with the ambitious goal of walking all the streets of Pittsburgh. That project–usually shortened to the acronym WATSOP–takes an impressive amount of discipline, organization, and physical stamina, but we’re consistently bowled-over by Valentino’s oddball finds in the field.

Yeah, sure–I’ve been to Lincoln-Lemington plenty of times–but never came across the Heaven & Hell painted garden edger thingamagigs. And how about the Valentine’s Day skeleton of Brookline? It was Lisa who hooked us up with Barbie’s Dream Cult in Polish Hill.

SO, we thought it was high time to check in with Valentino and find out what’s up with WATSOP, how she came up with the project, keeps track of where she’s been, and what she’s learned along the way.

Editor’s note: Typically, for a story like this, we’d do a walk-along to chronicle the process. But between the timely need for social distancing and the fact that Lisa’s photos are already so great, this story involved zero field work. All photos courtesy of Lisa Valentino.

collection of Barbie dolls attached to chain link fence

Barbie’s Dream Cult, Polish Hill

How did you come up with the idea to walk all of Pittsburgh’s streets?

First, for four years I had been doing Project 365–take one photo every day and post on social media. At four years one exhausts everything familiar (yes, one day I photographed all the doorknobs in my house at the 11th hour). I was already in the habit of searching and exploring for something different and new to catch my eye.

Then I stumbled upon Félix de la Concha’s One A Day at the alumni hall at Pitt. His 365 paintings of the Cathedral of Learning from as many different perspectives got me really noticing when the iconic building would pop into view as I traveled in and out of the city. One day, while starting the climb to the slopes on a walk in the South Side I saw the Cathedral in the distance and wondered “from how many locations will I see a view of the Cathedral?” Then it hit me…. “Let’s find out!” And “what else will I find?” And “Why not walk ALL THE STREETS OF PITTSBURGH to SEE what I will find?!” And there it was!

long-distance view of Pittsburgh from hillside neighborhood

View of Oakland and Pitt’s Cathedral of Learning from the South Side Slopes

What are the parameters of the project?

When I set off to do this, the first hurdle was finding a map! Many Pittsburgh maps only encompassed areas close to downtown. Maps that included a bit of a wider range did not have enough detail to show every street. So I began to search for any map that would show and name my two block street in Point Breeze.

After settling on the perfect map, a Bike Pittsburgh Map, I started marking off my walked streets. If it’s on the map, I walk it. As the years have gone by several new streets have popped up that are not on my map, but more surprising are the number of streets that seemed to have disappeared. Most due to abandonment, I suppose. Overgrown with trees and weeds and barely a path to indicate a street was ever there.

I walk every street, alley, and dead-end in the city. I will not do the highways/parkways unless there is a patch that keeps me off those busy roads. I only do city steps if they get me from one street to another. Because they are not on the Bike Pgh map, I don’t count them as walking the streets. (Perhaps someone needs to come up with a Walk Pgh map?) Though I will say, there is nothing more delightful than stumbling upon a set of city steps to take me to the next street and avoiding doubling back from where I just came!

overgrown vacant lot between two brick buildings

“I walk every street, alley, and dead-end in the city.” Homewood

When did you start? Do you have an estimated completion date?

My first intentional Walking All the Streets of Pittsburgh walk was May 18, 2015. When I started I foolishly thought I could finish in one year. I suppose if I did nothing else in the year and suffered no setbacks I could have. I mean, it’s easy to walk 1000 miles in a year, right? Averaging less than 3 miles a day?! But life never works that way. Twice I lost months of walking due to back problems that left me unable to do much more than lay on the floor watching the Hays eagle cam for weeks at a time!

As I approach the anniversary with nearly five years under my belt, I would love to finish by May 18, 2020. But that looks unlikely. You know, life.

hilltop neighborhood view from Pittsburgh

View of Allentown and top of the USX Tower from Knoxville

How often do you walk (for the project) and for how long? How do you plan the schedule for the walks?

When I started walking, I walked everywhere I could from my house in Point Breeze: to Squirrel Hill for shopping and movies; to Regent Square and Shadyside for lunch and dinner dates with friends. To doctors appointments in Oakland. I jumped on any reason to walk from my house to anywhere I had to go.

Then any time I needed to get in the car to travel somewhere I’d squeeze in a chance to walk before coming back home. Visiting family in the South Hills had me stopping to cross off streets in southern neighborhoods. I’d Google laundromats and search for ones in outlying neighborhoods so I could walk between cycles. I looked forward to appointments and meetings as another opportunity to explore a new neighborhood.

The length of the walks and number of times I walked each week varied depending on my schedule, my health, the weather, and hours of daylight. I would stop to cross off one street in a sea of walked streets as I drove past a neighborhood, or, in the summer with its long hours of daylight, I’d do two big walks, one in the morning and one in the evening while the light lingered.
These days I find myself needing to drive about a half hour each way to get to a neighborhood where I need to walk, having completed most of streets in the Triangle (east of the Point).

lawn decoration of plastic skeleton with red valentine prop

The Valentine’s Day skeleton of Brookline

How do you track where you’ve been?

After a walk I’d take a Sharpie to the Bike Pgh maps to cross off streets. I had one copy of the map I’d take with me on walks as reference, and one hung on my wall as a display. I soon began using the MapMyWalk app to track my route because it became hard to remember and focus on the route, especially while walking with friends. Then the map became hard to read. With all those Sharpie route tracings, it was a less reliable resource for where I still needed to walk. So I began marking my walks in Google Maps. While the travel map is tattered and torn beyond usefulness, I do still use it fas a prop or my final picture in a completed neighborhood. And the display map hangs proudly on my wall and is updated after each walk.

paper map of Pittsburgh with lines drawn to mark all streets walked

Valentino’s “display” copy of the Bike Pittsburgh map, marked with all currently-walked streets (as of some point in 2019)

Now that you’ve been doing this a while, what’s the biggest difference between your pre-project expectations and the reality of the walks?

Well, if the project started as a quest to see the various viewpoints of the Cathedral of Learning, I can say that I’ve added to that the many wonderful views of downtown beyond Mount Washington. Not just those northern neighborhood views that were entirely new to me, but also the delightful surprise of turning a corner in a southern Hilltop neighborhood to see the very tops of the tallest buildings peeking over the horizon or sandwiched between two houses.

I have also become quite obsessed with water towers. Not only for their unique design and a new appreciation for the engineering to keep satisfactory water pressure in our homes. But also as the best orientation markers the city has to offer. You can view the city skyline and the Cathedral of Learning as a compass pointing you to downtown and Oakland, but seeing the bulbous water tower of the Upper Hill and the Garfield water tower in the same view allows me to put in perspective all the neighborhoods at once.

Holy Hell, these hills! I know they say Canton is the steepest, but thankfully it is quite short. And when walking straight up them I can name a number of streets that seems to have access to the same claim (most of them also in Beechview)! It hadn’t occurred to me that such a hilly terrain is somewhat unique in this country until a friend from Illinois commented on them. I love the city for the hills and the views they provide, and I curse them when I’m tired and the only way to go is UP!

large set of crisscrossing public steps in Pittsburgh

Holy Hell, these hills! City steps, Troy Hill.

What is/are the biggest disappointment(s) you’ve experienced through the project?

Oddly enough, it’s been the number of warnings I’ve gotten to avoid certain areas. To date, I have never had a problem walking in any of the neighborhoods. And in “those” neighborhoods, if anything, I have found THE nicest, most friendly Pittsburghers!

house with yellow flowers and Easter decorations

Spring on the South Side Slopes

If you had an hour-long sit-down meeting with, say, Mayor Peduto (or other city planning officials) what would be your strongest recommendation for action based on what you’ve learned/seen in your project?

Preserve the city steps! This is such a unique, wonderful asset and a beautiful reminder of our pre-car days. [Editor’s note: A to the MEN!]

I love to walk, I love to bike, and I love having a car to get around. But I think people have forgotten that WE ARE ALL PEDESTRIANS and we are all pedestrians FIRST. Before we bike, before we own cars, we walk. And no matter how we get to our destination, we all need to walk those final steps. So I do hope the city continues to keep pedestrian accessibility a priority. Fixing city steps, maintaining and keeping sidewalks clear, dedicated crosswalks and other traffic calming measures to keep the pedestrians safe and motivated to travel by foot.

dog on leash on public steps, Pittsburgh

Valentino’s canine companion on a set of city steps, Perry North

Does such a close block-by-block inspection of the city make you more or less optimistic about Pittsburgh/America/humanity?

Humanity? I tend to run into very few people on my walks. I would say those that I do run into have been friendly, willing to talk and share stories and point out some things that might interest me. I always walk away with a newfound hope for humanity after those encounters, yes.

Pittsburgh? I know everyone has their preferences on this, but I am not excited to see all these big development projects popping up all over the place. Lawrenceville seems to be the worst of it. And of course there is displacement, which is a whole other issue. There is so much beauty and history that would be wonderful to preserve.

ornament of figure holding Bible and name "Rev. Murray"

Rev. Murray, Hazelwood

What do you feel like you’ve learned through the project?

EASY!! I’ve fallen in love with this city!

view of Pittsburgh's Greenfield neighborhood from above

Easy to love. Greenfield/”The Run,” Parkway east, and Cathedral of Learning.

I’ve heard there’s another person also attempting a similar walk-all-Pittsburgh-streets project (but I’m not in contact with her). Are you familiar? Have you ever crossed paths?

I am not at all proud of this, but my gut reaction was “someone is trying to steal my idea.” After I had committed about 4 years to this unique quest it hit me kind of hard. It has taken a while to come to terms with it, but in the end it helped me on my walks. Because we are often photographing the same quirky finds on our walks, it led me to feel less inclined to photograph everything. So on days that I’m being tangled by two puppies as I try to cover streets, I can let go of trying to get photographs. I know Megan will or has found those things already.

And, of course, her approach is much different than mine. She blogs about her walks with much detail and folks should definitely follow her. My approach has always been, as a visual artist, to explore and discover and photograph what I find interesting. My hope would be that by doing so I have encouraged people to want to go out and find or discover the hidden gems of this city for themselves. That is why I tend to give very little detail on where the photos are taken, beyond naming the neighborhood.

Lisa Valentino with crossed-off map of Pittsburgh streets

Valentino with map at the completion of walking Squirrel Hill

For more on Lisa Valentino’s art and creative projects, see her website LisaVCreative.com, Instagram @LisaVCreative, and WATSOP Facebook page.


Related: This story about one person’s quest to walk all of the things in the city can’t help but remind us of Laura Zurowski’s similar-but-different project to locate, climb, photograph, and blog about all 739 sets of city steps. More process, less volume, but equally fascinating. See: Step Beat: Talking Missed Connections and Mis.Steps with Ms. Steps (Pittsburgh Orbit, March, 2018).

An Urban Hike: William Street, Mount Washington

downtown Pittsburgh seen through silhouetted trees

Ghost City. Downtown Pittsburgh as seen through trees on William Street, Mt. Washington.

If Rod Stewart is to be believed, every picture tells a story. This one’s a doozy.

In the photograph, the camera lens is roughly eye level with the tallest buildings in downtown Pittsburgh. They’re not “skyscraper” material, but we’ve got a collection of 40-, 50-, and 60-story towers that can legitimately feel “big city” if you pick just the right block to look up in. But here, it’s hard to actually see them–the distant office buildings of Grant and Smithfield Streets are heavily obscured by a foreground scrim of silhouetted trees clustered awkwardly, bent by nature, and leaning with no perceptible pattern.

The city scene is so background, washed-out, and featureless behind the crisp black tree line that it’s nearly unrecognizable if you don’t know what to look for. The storyline writes itself–Pittsburgh: the illusion of a big city within the reality of Appalachia.

single-lane road surrounded by trees in Pittsburgh, PA

big city living: William Street, about half way up

The bummer in taking a hike–if there is one–can be just getting there. As a person who’d rather not be in a car, the irony that one must drive to take a walk is befuddling and frustrating. It’s like purchasing new trash bags to just put them straight in the waste bin. Sure, you could live in a mountain cabin and hike right out the front door, but then you’d have to get in the car to buy your provisions–what a mess!

Not so in Pittsburgh. There are, of course, terrific woodsy trails in the city parks (especially Riverview and Frick), but one needn’t stop there. Between the up-and-down topography and relative sparseness of the hilltop communities, there are ample urban hikes just a bicycle ride or bus transfer away.

hand-painted road sign with multiple curves, Pittsburgh, PA

they ain’t kidding: curves ahead on William Street

Like the old joke, “I went a to a fight and a hockey game broke out,” we arrived at William Street  last week on journalistic assignment and a hike happened. We were up on Mount Washington to track down and photograph the childhood home of [bygone football hero] Johnny Unitas. [For more on that, see last week’s story “A Football Team That Wanted Him: Johnny Unitas and the Bloomfield Rams” by David Craig.] Oh, we located the house–but we found so much more too.

sun coming through trees in Grandview Park, Pittsburgh, PA

uphill to Grandview Park

There would have been a lot more homes up here in young Johnny U’s day–frankly, it’s a bit of a surprise the Unitas house is still standing. William Street, which descends as a snake-slithering one-lane/one-way from Boggs Ave. down to Arlington Ave., has few remaining buildings today. A 1901 map, however, shows us how many homes once stood along the road. Whether that’s because the residential plots were requisitioned to create the surrounding park land or if it just got too difficult and expensive to maintain houses in a holler on the side of a mountain is unknown. Maybe one was a convenient excuse for the other.

In any case, the signs of life are still here. Like any self-respecting city steps hike, the amateur archeologist is rewarded with nature-without-man trees growing through basements, layered stone foundations, felled chimneys, and still extant front steps edging right up to the roadside–all this as the sun’s halo casts a rich, dappled light through the lush greenery of Grandview Park.

stone steps and house foundation on hillside in Pittsburgh, PA

forgotten foundation and entry steps, lower William Street

detail of William Street from a 1901 map showing many former houses on the south and east sides of the street

detail: lower William Street c. 1901 showing many former houses on the south and east sides of the street (G.M. Hopkins & Co. map collection)

There’s a line that every Pittsburgher has a favorite view of the city–the West End Overlook, Grandview Avenue, or St. John’s Cemetery in Spring Hill, for example. The richness of options on this one little path make a fair case for William Street as two or three different best views.

Near the top, there’s a unique look north-northwest to the side of Mount Washington proper–the big broadcast tower at the end of Grandview is an easy beacon. You also get the oddball collection of both traditional and uber-modern houses on little Cola Street in the foreground, plus a glancing shot at downtown and The Point. In the same general area, one can bag a nice sight line across the Smithfield Street bridge to the whole of downtown.

view of downtown Pittsburgh from Mt. Washington

William Street, north view: downtown, Smithfield Street Bridge, Cola Street

view of downtown Pittsburgh from Mt. Washington

William Street, view north-northwest: Grandview Ave. (with broadcast tower), houses on Cola Street, downtown

Further down, as William bends to more of an east-west layout, there are vantage points looking directly down the Liberty Bridge and off-angles from either side. Here, you’ll get eyes on the jail, Uptown, Duquesne University, and all the way across two rivers to Troy Hill and Spring Hill on the north side of the Allegheny.

view of downtown Pittsburgh from Mt. Washington

William Street, view north-northeast: Liberty Bridge, jail, and Uptown

William Street is not without its perils. One big section of the road has begun to crumble off the hillside. Other parts are so narrow there’s not a lot of margin for error. These are mainly concerns for the motorists rolling the dice as they travel downhill, but you’ll want to keep your wits about you.

Citizen-hikers should take note: William is an active city street and cars will slowly edge by you while pumping their brakes. That said, it’s just not that busy–in the full climb up and back on a Saturday morning, we probably encountered less than ten vehicles.

wooden steps descending to wooded trail, Pittsburgh, PA

entrance to Emerald View Trail from William Street

The street even provides for the folks who don’t consider a walk on pavement to be a “real” hike. Climbers have the option to sneak off the asphalt and into the woods near the top of the hill. There, the terrific Emerald View Trail runs right across the street on its route from Bigbee Field/Grandview Park above to the woods around McArdle Roadway below.

These are Pittsburgh’s salad days. Crisp, jacket-weather mornings followed by lush, unrelenting blue sky afternoons full of turning leaves, pumpkin-spiced and decorative gourd fall fantasias, plus a seeming mass conviviality we never quite achieve the rest of the year. Get out there and enjoy it.